Kiwi As

8 October, Spiegeltent
Hawke’s Bay Arts Festival 2017

Festival folk are freaks and fantasists. It’s humanly impossible to do what they do or even conceptualise the things they bring to the stage. Yet, in us all there is a little freak desperate to get up and ‘have a go’. We sit in the dark, as an appreciative audience, all dreaming of being on the stage, for one tune, one gag, one soliloquy, one arabesque. So it’s fitting that now after two weeks of hard-core cultural consumption it’s the community’s moment in the spotlight: The 150-plus singers of the combined Kiwi As choir, our own Hawke’s Bay Community Choir joined by “Visitors from Wellington who came up on a coach”, the Wellington Community Choir, under the baton of Julian Raphael. The singers were supported by the Hawke’s Bay House Band of Anton Wuts, Rosie Langabeer – deftly dancing between keyboard and trombone – and drummer Joe Dobson, with Matt Mear on trumpet and Dan Fulton on bass.

Much of the singers’ repertoire was the old home guard of the Kiwi Songbook: Don, Dave, Tim and Neil. This was juxtaposed against more obscure pieces from the band. A particular favourite – tears running down cheeks – was Faye composed by Jakob and re-arranged by Wuts. Shihad’s Factory was another perfectly pitched reworking, although much of the audience moved uncomfortably in their seats upon receiving it. Although billed as Kiwi As, the only touch of te reo came from the vaudevillian MC who welcomed us with Haere Mai. New Zealand has such a wealth of songs – in English and te reo Māori – it would have been refreshing and satisfying to hear from a greater range of songwriters. And Wuts is such an intriguing and dynamic arranger, it would be interesting to hear more from his point of view too.

Both the choir and the band had lots to offer, but the meld of the two was unconvincing. The honed skill of the band – although only five – risked upstaging the choir. Perhaps it was an idea over-egged. Celebrating the guts and talent of the amateurs seems more dignified without the side show of an extremely accomplished, but perhaps in this forum unnecessary, band. There would have been a spectrum of experience and ability within the singing masses to be sure, but collectively the offering was momentous and beautiful, heart-felt, enthusiastic, and a joy to share in.

The climax of the concert was witnessing over 100 mainly middle-aged white people – actual adults – belting out the chorus to Th’ Dudes Bliss: “Drink yourself more piss/Forget about the last one get yourself another”. This was a moment of beautiful pastiche from Wuts who arranged the song for choir, and brought a certain blissful revivalist quality to the concert. Perhaps also it was social commentary on undercover middleclass alcoholism. Whether a song of worship or protest, it was certainly fun to be part of.

In a fortnight of festive celebration it seemed fitting for the community to sit facing itself, half consumers, half producers of culture. But when the moments of audience participation came, the audience remained relatively mute, even the woman beside me who had said before the show started how much she wished she could sing! It could be daunting to participate in cultural forms where there is a divide between professional on stage and amateur in the audience. But when that binary is broken and we are all amateurs there is a duty for the audience to really get involved. Come on crowd, sing your socks off!

For the heroism it takes to get up there and for the celebration of our can-do nation, it was fitting to usher in the choir with the National Anthem. But it was fitting too for the band to send them off with the toots and shrieks of Freaks at the end. For in all of us there is a little freak, just wanting to get up there and show off our stuff. Bravo to those who actually did it, encore please!


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